For eleven days each summer, students taking Advanced Hebrew immerse themselves in Hebrew at the Hermitage, a retreat community in southwest Michigan.
According to professors Pam “Qiqayon” Bush and Travis “Moshe” West, the class is about 70% Hebrew and 30% spiritual formation—and sometimes the other way around.
“Hebrew Camp” aims to prepare students who will become lab leaders for the Biblical Hebrew course. Students develop a dramatic enactment of the story of Naaman from 2 Kings 5, as well as study grammar and vocabulary for many hours each day. The class is a rich exercise in community building, collaboration, and developing spiritual practices.
“It’s the most challenging, exhausting, rewarding, and life-giving educational experience that I’ve encountered in my life—every single year,” says Professor West.
Each morning, students practice silence during breakfast until the time for morning prayers. Then the group prays and sings together in Hebrew. Lunch is also in Hebrew—which many students find challenging at first.
“The first lunch was basically silent,” confesses 2016 Hebrew Camp student Emily Scatterday-Holehan. “But by the end of the week, you’re making jokes in Hebrew.”
Students like Emily are volunteers from previous years who form a hospitality team to prepare and serve each meal. The team creates healthy dishes and decorates the table with flowers or candles to make it a beautiful experience each day.
Many students say dinners together are the best part of camp. The group eats around one big table, sharing the joys and sorrows of the day. Professor Bush asks everyone to answer: “What are you grateful for?” as well as a second, probing question about the day.
“We all came with our stress, frustration, or joys, and everything landed on the table at dinner,” recalls Chelsea Reynhout, a 2016 participant. “It was like the great equalizer, the embodiment of communion.”
Being together 24/7 with fellow students is challenging yet beneficial.
“You can’t get in your car and drive away when you’re frustrated; you have to come back to the table,” explains Alisha Riepma.
“No one told us we had to share personal things with each other,” says Cassie Nelson-Rogalski, “but it happened because we were living together, and it was really beautiful to hold each other’s grief, pain, and joy.”
On Friday evening, the group watches the sunset in preparation for Shabbat—the Sabbath. The table is laid out with special care for the evening meal.
“To watch the sunset with your community, sing together, and then come back to the dinner table all set… was a homey feeling of being really loved,” Laurel Pals reflects.
All of Saturday is spent resting. Some students have continued the tradition of Shabbat after camp is over.
“I’ve never allowed myself to rest before without feeling guilty,” admits Nelson-Rogalski. Now, she and her husband try to practice Sabbath weekly, preparing everything on Friday afternoon so that Saturday can be a full day of rest.
“Part of [the challenge] is exegeting the passage as a collective whole,” Riepma says. “Some of us value excellence in language and grammar. Some value artistic flair. And then others care about the theological implications.”
Students come to camp prepared with their own creative response to the story of Naaman—whether a song, a skit, or even a news report. The story connects to each student differently, and everyone draws something unique from it.
Cameron Beidler wrote a song from the perspective of Naaman’s inner journey of despair to proclamation. “God is stronger than our unbelief,” was Beidler’s favorite line. “No matter how much we push back at God…He’s stronger than anything we can throw at him.”
By the end of the week, the story takes shape. The students are practicing to perform their enactment for the entire WTS community soon after the beginning of the fall semester.
Ultimately, Hebrew Camp is about learning Hebrew.
“Our teachers managed to teach us to love Hebrew—to love a language—which in turn has taught me to love scripture,” says Reynhout.
It is a strain to focus on Hebrew for that many hours, day after day—but ultimately, according to Pals, “it’s less daunting and more familiar now.”
Hebrew students from past years are still using what they learned at camp in their lives and ministries.
Reynhout had entered seminary with a vision for ministry that did not involve being a pastor, but she left Hebrew Camp a with her call transformed.
“My imagination was sparked for the way things could be—the way we could learn together, how we could take these lessons into churches.” One year later, Reynhout is discerning a call to be a lead pastor.
“Our professors gave us each a blessing, laying hands on our heads and speaking words of truth over us,” remembers Rev. Audrey Edewaard, a 2015 participant. “The blessing I received— ‘May you go to the depths of your soul, which can be hidden by exuberance’—is framed in my office and serves as a daily reminder to have courage to stand in the tension of pain, confusion, and hopelessness with the people I serve and within my own person.”
Rev. Edewaard has also taught songs and enacted stories for high school students at North Holland Reformed Church.
In Rev. Jonathan Gabhart’s role as a pastor of worship arts, he writes songs for his church to sing. “Because of Hebrew studies at WTS, I translate the Psalms as a part of a songwriting method. It’s enjoyable and meaningful to burrow into the rhythm and sound of the Hebrew text.”
Scatterday-Holehan is pregnant with her first child and has been singing a specific Hebrew prayer to her growing baby: Barukh ‘attah Adonai ‘eloheinu, melekh ha’olam. Shehecheyanu, veqiyemanu, vehigi’anu lazman hazeh. “Blessed are you, Oh Lord our God, ruler of the universe who gives us life, who sustains us, and has brought us to this very moment.” (in Hebrew below)
She has also used Hebrew prayers and word studies as small group coordinator at Hope College Campus Ministries.
“Hebrew Camp affected my life and decisions, the way I view God and my calling, and my interaction with the Sabbath,” she shares. “Who thought 11 days speaking Hebrew would do that?”